The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Ethnography (from the Greek ethnos = nation and graphe = writing) refers to the qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on months or years of fieldwork. Ethnography may be "holistic," describing a society as a whole, or it may focus on specific problems or situations within a larger social scene. The genre has both formal and historical connections to travel writing and colonial office reports, but several academic traditions claim ethnography as a valid research method that submerges the subjectivity of a researcher in the routines of an alternative social environment to discover its specific and otherwise unpredictable patterns.

Cultural anthropology grew up around the practice of ethnography. Its canonical texts are mostly ethnographies, e.g. Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski, The Nuer by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead, or Naven by Gregory Bateson. Cultural anthropologists today place such a high value on actually doing ethnographic research that ethnology, meaning the comparative synthesis of ethnographic information, is rarely the foundation for a career.

Within cultural anthropology, there are several sub-genres of ethnography. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, anthropologists began writing "confessional" ethnographies that intentionally exposed the nature of ethnographic research. Famous examples include Tristes Tropiques by Claude LÚvi-Strauss, The High Valley by Kenneth Read, and The Savage and the Innocent by David Maybury-Lewis, as well as the mildly fictionalized Return to Laughter by Elenore Smith Bowen (Laura Bohannan). Later "reflexive" ethnographies refined the technique to translate cultural differences by representing their effects on the ethnographer. Famous examples include Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco by Paul Rabinow, The Headman and I by Jean-Paul Dumont, and Tuhami by Vincent Crapanzano. In the 1980s, the rhetoric of ethnography was subjected to intense scrutiny within the discipline, under the general influence of literary theory and post-colonial/post-structuralist thought. "Experimental" ethnographies that reveal the ferment of the discipline include Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man by Michael Taussig, Debating Muslims by Michael F. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, A Space on the Side of the Road by Kathleen Stewart, and Advocacy after Bhopal by Kim Fortun.

Sociology and cultural studies also produce ethnography. Urban sociology and the Chicago School in particular are associated with ethnographic research, although some of the most well-known examples (including Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte and Black Metropolis by Clair Drake) were influenced by an anthropologist, Lloyd Warner, who happened to be in the sociology department at Chicago. Symbolic interactionism developed from the same tradition and yielded several excellent sociological ethnographies, including Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine, which documents the early history of fantasy role-playing games. But even though many sub-fields and theoretical perspectives within sociology use ethnographic methods, ethnography is not the sine qua non of the discipline, as it is in cultural anthropology.

Education and Ethnomusicology are others fields which have made extensive use of ethnography. The American anthropologist George Spindler (Stanford University) was a pioneer in applying ethnographic methodology to the classroom.

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